Canadian News

How many mailing days before Christmas?

Ian Urquhart October 9 1978
Canadian News

How many mailing days before Christmas?

Ian Urquhart October 9 1978

How many mailing days before Christmas?

Canadian News

Ian Urquhart

At half-past midnight on Sept.

27, André Ouellet, acting labor minister, and Bob McGarry, president of the Letter Carriers’

Union of Canada, emerged beaming from a conference room on the top floor of one of the shiny, new office towers the government has built across the river from Parliament Hill in Hull, Quebec.

Trailed by a dozen aides and colleagues, the two men navigated their way through the discarded pizza cartons and soft-drink cans that had sustained the press during an 11 ¥2-hour vigil. We have reached an agreement, they told the reporters. “Collective bargaining is obviously based on compromise,” said Ouellet. “But I think it is a responsible contract that is in the best interests of the employees and the Canadian public.”

Thus came to an end the latest strike in what seems a never-ending series of disruptions by postal employees. It was not a long strike for the post office—it lasted just four days compared to six weeks in the last major dispute, which

involved the inside workers. But it appeared destined to go on longer before last week’s surprising turn of events. When negotiations broke off the previous week, it seemed only Parliament could end the strike by legislating the men back to work. This view was reinforced the following day when Postmaster-General Gilles Lamontagne and Treasury Board President Robert Andras held a joint press conference to declare there was “absolutely” no more money available in the government’s coffers for settling the dispute at the bargaining table.

At the beginning of last week, Ouellet chaired a meeting of a subcommittee of cabinet charged with drafting legislation to order the letter carriers back to work. Simultaneously, the carriers’ bargaining team was meeting at union headquarters ,in Ottawa’s suburban west end. Tipped off by a source on Trudeau’s staff that the cabinet subcommittee was preparing back-to-work legislation, the letter carriers began devising a counter-strategy to try to exploit the splits they believed existed among the ministers. As the carriers saw it, both Ouellet and Allan MacEachen, known as small-1 liberals in the cabinet, were loath to take away a union’s right to strike after just four days and would be open to suggestions that negotiations be resumed. They contacted Bill Kelly, assistant deputy minister of labor (see box), with an offer to get back to the table if Ouellet— not Lamontagne or Andras— represented the government.

Adventures of a master strike-fixer

Bill Kelly, a stocky, bulbous-nosed, gumchewing Irish Canadian, looks more like a union boss than a senior civil servant. In fact, he was international vice-president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and ran a national rail strike in 1966 before he joined the public service. Now, 12 years later, the 54-year-old Kelly is assistant deputy minister of labor and is universally recognized as one of the best, if not the best, mediators in the country. His scorecard includes successful mediation of difficult disputes involving railway employees and longshoremen and, in the last six weeks alone, he has been instrumental in settling two conflicts at Air Canada and one at the post office.

The secret of Kelly’s success is that he is trusted and respected by management and labor alike. Labor’s view is easy to understand, given Kelly’s background as a union leader and, before that, as a brakeman for Canadian Pacific, the third generation of his family to work for the railroad. “There’s a helluva lot of people who do mediation work who haven’t ever worked in a shop, who haven't got a working-class background,” says Mike Rygus, Canadian vice-president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. “Bill Kelly has.” Management representatives were skeptical when Kelly was first appointed a mediator at the department of labor. “In the beginning, we had some concern over whether he could put himself in a neutral position,” admits Jack Anderson, vice-president of labor relations for Canadian Pacific. “It was darn short-lived. Kelly will twist your arm right out of its socket to get a settlement. He’ll make you give things you’d rather not. But he does the same thing with the other side.” Kelly himself says the two tricks of his trade are perception and timing, in that order. In mediation, “You have to watch for every raised eyebrow," he declares. “It isn’t what’s said—it’s how it’s said.” Then when a settlement appears near, "If you try to force a decision before everybody’s ready, it can result in a blow-up.” That requires patience, of which Kelly has an abundance. He will sit at the bargaining table as long as he has to (his record is 36 straight hours) to wring out a settlement.

Kelly took the message to the cabinet subcommittee, which kicked it around for two hours. Finally, Ouellet phoned McGarry. “Would the letter carriers call off their strike for 24 hours if he agreed to meet them?” Ouellet asked. McGarry said they would, and the talks were back on again.

The two sides met the next day, Sept. 26, at 1 p.m. at the labor department’s headquarters in Hull. With Kelly twisting the union’s arm and with Ouellet pressing his cabinet colleagues, particularly Andras, to loosen the government’s purse strings, they had a settlement 11 Vz hours later.

Under the settlement, still o to be ratified by the union membership, the basic carrier’s wage goes up immediately to $7.08 from $6.65 an hour, an increase of three cents over the government’s “final” offer of $7.05. The union calculates that the new contract

package, including fringe benefits and wage hikes for carriers in higher classifications, represents an increase of 7.3 per cent in the first year, up from 6.5 per cent previously offered by the government as a demonstration of its com-

mitment to restraint.

The winners in the dispute were evidently the carriers, who were openly gloating over their end run around the back-to-work bill, and Ouellet, who returned to the spotlight after two years in the relatively obscure urban affairs portfolio. The clear losers were Lamontagne and Andras, who put their credibility on the line at their joint press conference with their flat declarations that no more money was available for the striking carriers. To emphasize the point, the very day Ouellet was bargaining with the union, Lamontagne released the text of a speech which said: “We simply cannot offer the letter carriers more money. There is no more.” By the time he actually delivered the speech, Lamontagne changed the line to say: “We simply cannot make the letter carriers a much more generous offer.”

How did the public fare in the settlement? Mail service has been restored without the government’s having to pay an exorbitant price. But the relief will almost certainly be short-lived. The militant inside workers will be in a legal position to strike by mid-month and no one expects their dispute to be as easy to settle as the carriers’ was, so wide is the gulf between union and management.

In an attempt to bridge that gulf, the post office went over the head of the union last month to appeal directly to the inside workers in a public-relations campaign of newsletters, charts and “dialogues” promoting the government’s contract offer. Post office management believes the blitz, dubbed “Operation Cascade,” succeeded in softening the stand of the inside workers. The union, which called management “incompetent liars,” believes the operation only heightened the workers’ resolve to strike.

A passionate advocate of the collectivebargaining process, Kelly considers he has failed whenever Parliament is asked to bring an end to a dispute by legislation, as happened with the railways in 1973 and the longshoremen in 1975, and almost happened last week with the letter carriers. “When Parx liament has to be used, the system has broas ken down,” he says. “Every time you do it, □ you leave a little respect for the law behind.” 1 Kelly devotes his time to ensuring it doesn't 2 happen too often. Ian Urquhart

Even in the unlikely event the inside workers do not strike, Canada faces a long, hot winter of labor strife in the public sector as inflation-ravaged unions clash with governments determined to hold the line on wages. Air Canada, having just settled disputes with its pilots, machinists and flight attendants, now faces yet another round of bargaining with its pilots, whose contract expires next month. Further on the horizon, the national railways may shut down this winter as the union contracts expire Dec. 31. And the whole of the federal public service may be hit with a general strike as the unions battle legislation that would tie their wages to rates in the private sector.

The awakening of the public-sector unions after three years of wage-price controls has led to renewed calls for removal of the right to strike in essential services. A post office-sponsored conference in Toronto last week was dominated by anti-strike talk, including a “Howard Beale” speech by Maclean's publisher Lloyd Hodgkinson. “We are mad as hell and we won’t put up with it any more,” declared Hodgkinson. While the quick end to the postal dispute restored some faith in the collective bargaining process and dampened the antistrike fever, it would not take much to revive it. “But the idea that you can ban strikes by taking away the right to strike is very short of reality,” says Ouellet. “If you did, you would just have illegal strikes.”